The Fight for our Heroes - Part III
The desire of George Washington and many of America’s other great founding fathers to eliminate slavery was profound, but as the great scholar Thomas Sowell writes, the “practical question” of how to get rid of the institution “had them baffled.” While there was no easy solution to the slavery question, the founders passed measures that they hoped would put the practice on the path to ultimate extinction. These included the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which prevented the spread of slavery into the Northwest Territory, and the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which took effect in 1808. Despite the efforts of the founders, it ultimately required a tragic and bloody Civil War that pitted brother against brother and friend against friend to end slavery in America, once and for all.
Sectional tensions between the American North and South dated back to the days of the founding fathers. Even Washington himself fearfully predicted that the different ways of life between the two regions and their competing visions of the future would one day lead the Union to separate. He was right. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th president of the United States in November 1860, all of the long-simmering issues like the place of slavery and its expansion, the debate over power between states and the federal government, differing senses of identity between the people of the North and South, and more finally ripped the nation apart. By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, seven states from the Deep South had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. One month later, Confederate guns opened fire on the Federal garrison holding Fort Sumter in South Carolina, marking the beginning of the Civil War and ushering in what became the bloodiest four years in American history.
In what began as a paramount struggle to save the Union, President Lincoln came to see that the Civil War also had to provide a final answer to the slavery question in America. In one of the most consequential moments of the conflict, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which freed “all persons held as slaves” in the rebellious Southern states. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation turned the Northern fight into one not only to restore the Union, but also one in which slavery must be put to an end. No matter how despairing and bloody the war became, even when it looked like many Northerners were so desperate for peace that they would settle for a negotiated peace with the South at almost any price, Lincoln refused to break from those twin objectives.
The American Civil War ultimately claimed the lives of some 750,000 souls. For those who struggled to come to terms with the brutal cost and who agonized over why this terrible struggle had to be waged, President Lincoln provided the answer in his address at the dedication of the cemetery for Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg. Standing on a portion of the field that had witnessed the bloodiest battle of the war, a fight which resulted in an estimated 51,000 Union and Confederate casualties, Lincoln opened with an ode to the founding fathers and the “new nation” that they forged in 1776, which was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The Civil War was a test of “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” The greatest way to honor those who gave the “last full measure of devotion” in that noble struggle was to finish the fight and ensure “that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Through the steadfast efforts of President Lincoln and the countless sacrifices made by Union soldiers on the battlefield, the Union was saved, and the United States would indeed experience “a new birth of freedom.” “Thank God I have lived to see this,” said Lincoln after learning that the Confederate capital of Richmond had been liberated in April 1865. “It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone.” Tragically, however, in the hour of victory, one of the most disheartening moments in American history occurred when an assassin’s bullet tragically robbed the Union of its hero, Abraham Lincoln. While the pain of Lincoln’s loss left many with broken hearts, nothing could erase his legacy or his accomplishments.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation set the stage for the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which permanently abolished slavery in America. Through his tireless efforts, the amendment was passed by both houses of Congress by the end of January 1865. Although he did not live to see the 13th Amendment’s final ratification later that December, Lincoln did share a remarkable moment in the final days of the war that powerfully illustrated what he meant to black Americans and symbolized their profound reverence for the man who was so instrumental in securing their freedom.
One day after Richmond was captured by the Union Army of the Potomac, President Lincoln visited the battle-scarred Confederate capital on April 4, 1865. As he walked along charred streets and past rows of ruined buildings, thousands of African Americans shadowed him and “shouted with rapture, as if suddenly beholding the Messiah,” as noted by historian Ron Chernow. “Glory, hallelujah!” exclaimed one elderly black man as he knelt reverently at Lincoln’s feet. “Don’t kneel to me,” Lincoln told the man gently. “That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will hereinafter enjoy. I am but God’s humble instrument.”
Today, one can almost envision this touching moment by fixing their gaze on the Emancipation Memorial, also known as the Freedman’s Memorial, in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill. The statue depicts Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation in one hand and gesturing for a liberated slave wearing broken chains to rise up from his knees. It was built almost entirely with funds donated by former slaves and was unveiled on the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s death before a crowd of more than 25,000 people. The keynote address for the occasion was delivered by the great orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who declared, “we, the colored people, newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood-bought freedom, near the close of the first century in the life of this Republic, have now and here unveiled, set apart, and dedicated a monument of enduring granite and bronze, in every line, feature, and figure of which the men of this generation may read, and those of aftercoming generations may read, something of the exalted character and great works of Abraham Lincoln, the first martyr President of the United States.”
The Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington D.C. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Radical activists have recently made threats to tear down the Emancipation Memorial, with some claiming that the statue contains offensive imagery and others labeling it as a symbol of white supremacy. That last interpretation especially misses the mark and it also reveals a high degree of historical ignorance. Do the people who advocate for the statue’s destruction know the story of the encounter between Lincoln and the liberated slave who knelt before him in the final days of the Civil War? I think not, and so do a good many more. In fact, on June 26, 2020, black Americans rallied to Lincoln Park to defend the memorial and to enlighten the radicals on its meaning and historic significance. As one Civil War reenactor from the African American Civil War Museum put it, “I have made it my mission to protect that statue.” She also added, “Turn down the heat. Turn on the light. And let’s have some truth.”
While steps have been taken to protect the Emancipation Memorial on Capitol Hill, the fight for Abraham Lincoln’s legacy is far from over. The Boston art’s commission recently voted to remove an exact replica of the Emancipation Memorial that has stood in the historic city since 1879. There is even a push from some University of Wisconsin students to remove a statue of Lincoln from their campus. In these cases, and in those that are sure to follow, we must stand firm in our knowledge and defend this indispensable American hero.
Facing the greatest challenges of any president in American history, Abraham Lincoln sacrificed his mind, body, and soul to save the Union from ruin and fulfilled the dream of the founding fathers to rid the United States of the sin of slavery, once and for all. As Americans today, we owe him a debt of eternal gratitude and have a responsibility to truthfully teach his story and proudly defend his legacy. The example he set in the past must be a source of strength for us in the present. To echo the words of the great hero himself, especially in these turbulent times, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
Header Photo Credit: Adam Jones, Ph. D/Wikimedia Commons.
American Battlefield Trust: Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
American Enterprise Institute: Thomas Sowell on slavery.
Grant by Ron Chernow.
History.com: 13th Amendment.
History.com: Abraham Lincoln.
New York Post: Boston considers removing statue of Lincoln with freed slave.
Teaching American History: Oration in memory of Abraham Lincoln.
This Is Why We Stand: Abraham Lincoln elected president.